When Rockdale County Chief Superior Court Judge Sidney Nation ordered a man to buy a coffin as an everyday reminder of where his habitual drug use was taking him the decision attracted considerable attention but it was not done for amusement.
The casket did not have the desired effect and the troubled man continued to have problems but the idea of trying something different was a move Nation never shied away from.
“Sometimes you have to try something different when traditional steps have not proven successful,” said Nation. “It may not work and you may catch some heat for the decision but you can’t be afraid to try.”
Following the law while utilizing creativity and common sense to deal with real world problems was a hallmark of Nation’s career as he retires after 20 years as Superior Court Judge of the Rockdale County Judicial Circuit, the last 12 serving as Chief Judge.
“When we charge jurors to examine the facts of a case, we also ask them to use their common sense in looking at those facts,” said Nation. “The law ebbs and flows, and there are times, no matter how specific the law, it does not address a nuance or unusual set of circumstances. This is when a judge must be willing to step out on a limb even if he’s the only one there.”
More than 100 people attended the unveiling of Nation’s portrait last Friday, and Conyers Mayor Randy Mills read a proclamation announcing Nov. 30 as Sidney L. Nation Day. The portrait will hang in the courtroom over which Nation presided during his years on the bench.
Nation’s retirement becomes effective Dec. 31, after which Superior Court Judge David Irwin will become Chief Judge.
“Judge Nation had an enormous impact on the court and people of this community,” said Irwin. “He had a sense of duty and honor and viewed the world from a foundational belief he knew what was right and wrong. He had an unwavering sense of purpose and believed getting to the truth of the matter was paramount.”
Irwin noted that despite his reputation as a conservative, no nonsense judge, Nation was deliberate in his decisions and cared deeply about the long term effect of his rulings.
Irwin pointed out Nation, an Army veteran who served a tour of duty in Vietnam, conducted a version of ‘Veterans Court’ long before the concept became a norm.
“He recognized veterans returning from combat often face a unique set of problems and those factors must be considered,” said Irwin. “That’s just one example of his insight and his understanding of the world around him.”
As the first elected Chief Magistrate Judge, the first State Court Judge and two decades as a Superior Court Judge, Nation had a profound and long lasting influence on the Rockdale County Judicial Circuit and citizens of the community.
“Judge Nation is a man who cares deeply about this community and while some say he was tough he wanted to be tough because he wanted the citizens to feel safe and have those who were considering committing crime in Rockdale County to think maybe they should go someplace else,” said Rockdale County District Attorney Richard Read. “At the same time he wanted the process to be fair. He wanted the ordinary and average citizen to know he would listen to them and handle their case on an individual basis. He saw victims and defendants as individuals and did not believe criminal justice should be a cookie-cutter process.”
While attorneys and defendants appearing before Nation have called him a crusty curmudgeon, hard-nosed, old school, tough-minded and a few other things not printable in a family newspaper, his fundamental fairness and willingness to hear each case on its own merit was never questioned.
“The courtroom is where people come to hear the truth and it’s about the only branch of government people still have faith in that the truth will be told,” said Nation.
While Nation had his share of high profile cases, including a shooting incident at Heritage High School that garnered national attention, he never wavered in how he approached each case.
“Certainly there are very serious cases and some that attract more attention than others, but you have to remember that the case in front of you at that moment is the most important one,” said Nation. “My advice to any judge would be to give your full attention to the case before you, even if it is a seemingly minor one, because you can bet the people who are coming to court will not consider it minor and they have the right and expectation the court will give them full attention.”
Although his reputation as a tough judge was well earned, Nation often displayed a wry sense of humor.
“The courtroom is not a comedy club, but you should never forget you’re dealing with human beings and sometimes a little levity can be a good thing,” said Nation.
In one case Nation listened intently to the testimony of an expert witness talking about head trauma by citing a research study during which baboons were put in specially designed helmets and then hit on the head to determine the significance of the blow. After several minutes of very involved scientific testimony Nation interrupted the witness and said, “You mean you hit the baboons on the head with a hammer?” to which the witness sheepishly replied, “Yes.” Nation said, “I think we’ll take a short recess and let that sink in.”
While Nation received his legal education from the University of Georgia, his undergraduate degree came from Georgia Tech and education from the engineering school paid dividends even as a judge.
More than once lawyers were surprised, and sometimes dismayed, when they would go on about actuary tables or damage assessments only to have Nation whip out his pencil and calculator and show numbers contradicting those presented to the court.
Nation was also not afraid to exercise his own judgment to quickly deal with unusual situation.
Two young brothers from Alabama working on a construction project had one too many cocktails at a local tavern after work and the family brawl resulted in one hitting the other with a crowbar.
When the defendant and victim, who was not seriously injured, appeared in court, the victim told Nation it was no big deal and had happened before. Nation considered the entire situation. What could have been a serious offense resulting in prison ended when Nation dismissed the charges, telling the two boys to go back to Alabama and advising them to learn to hold their liquor better.
While a ban on cell phones is commonplace in most courtrooms, one of the few times Nation was left speechless on the bench was during a routine calendar call when a phone rang and the man on the front row snapped open the phone and told the caller loud enough for everyone to hear that he was in court and would call back in a few minutes. He then closed the phone and sat back as if nothing happened.
Nation just shook his head at the man’s nonchalant breach of decorum while Bailiff Dep. Billy Russell reminded everyone to turn their cell phones off.
Perhaps the quickest thing to raise Nation’s ire was a lawyer who came to court unprepared.
“When you come to court, you need to be ready to take care of your case,” said Nation. “Court is not selling apples on the street corner and an attorney has an obligation not just to the court but to the client to be prepared to present their case.”
Read noted that Nation enjoyed the legal banter with attorneys and would give them a chance to make their point.
“Judge Nation gave you the opportunity to challenge the court and argue the law,” said Read. “But once he made up his mind, you needed to remember the argument was over.”
There is also a long list of attorneys who have been admonished by Nation for not being ready to handle their business, and he has held more than a handful in contempt of court when they crossed the line.
“Judge Nation expects you to vigorously advocate for your client, but when he says the court has heard enough, you need to respect that decision,” said Irwin, who can quote from memory the date and time he was held in contempt by Nation.
Attorney Robert Mumford, who was elected Superior Court Judge to fill the seat upon Nation’s retirement, noted the judge has been a “remarkable asset to this court and community.”
“He established a line that some types of behavior will simply not be tolerated against the citizens of this county,” said Mumford. “If you want to call that tough, that’s fine, but he was looking out for the well-being of the community and that is a legacy that will make my job as easier when I take the bench.”
Nation, who attended his portrait unveiling in a wheelchair due to a recent fall, stood at the lectern, when he spoke to the gathering, and said serving the people of Rockdale County was the biggest honor of his life.
“Your success in life is dependent upon the people around you, and from the time I came here I’ve been surrounded by the finest people in the world,” said the 70-year-old Nation.
Nation is non-committal about his future plans. His wife, Dr. Carole Nation, is a retired teacher and he said, with his tongue firmly in his cheek, that after being married for 40-plus years, they will now “get to find out if we like each other.”
Nation has a variety of options. He can become a Senior Judge and handle an occasional case, return to private law practice—his son Michael is a local attorney—or teach.
“Right now I don’t know what I'm going to do,” said Nation. “Shoot, I may just go fishing.”